State Officials Provide Advice For Preventing Mulch Fires

STOW, MA — “Every year around this time, we experience many fires started by cigarettes tossed into piles of bark mulch, which is combustible and can easily catch fire,” says State Fire Marshal Peter J. Ostroskey. “We are asking smokers to dispose of their smoking materials responsibly in order to prevent fires. Don’t toss cigarette butts into mulch or a pile of dried leaves.”

“Businesses and homeowners that are sprucing up their landscaping should also provide and maintain safe receptacles for disposing of smoking materials so that people won’t start fires by tossing cigarettes into the mulch,” said State Fire Marshal Ostroskey, “Metal containers with sand are best.”

“If you see a smoldering mulch pile, please call 9-1-1 so the fire department can make sure it is truly extinguished. Mulch can smolder for a long time before erupting into flames,” said Ostroskey.

In the past five years (2013 – 2017), there have been 231 fires that started in mulch and spread to buildings. These 231 fires caused one civilian death, one civilian injury, 16 fire service injuries and property damages of $10.2 million. Fires that start on the exterior of buildings are usually not detected early, and by the time they enter the building to trigger a fire alarm, smoke detector or sprinkler system, the fire is already large. Fortunately, many mulch fires are caught and extinguished before spreading to a building or motor vehicle.

Mulch FireFactor

On the Department of Fire Service’s website, there is a Mulch FireFactor, an educational hand-out in both English and Spanish on mulch fire safety and the Fire Code. It can be used by fire departments to educate the community on the regulation and for building managers, landscapers and companies that store and sell mulch, to educate their staff.

Nurseries, Landscapers and Property Managers Need to Know the Rules

Fire officials want to remind building owners, property managers, nurseries and landscaping companies about the proper placement and storage of mulch in order to prevent these types of fires. Ostroskey said, “It’s important for mulch storage piles to be 30’ apart to keep fires from spreading.”

Keep Mulch 18” Away From Buildings

Here are some tips for property managers and building owners on how to prevent mulch fires:

  • Keep wood mulch 18” away from combustible exteriors of buildings such as wood or vinyl siding and decks. Don’t put it right up against the building.
  • Use materials such as pea stone or crushed rock for the first 18” as a barrier around the foundation of the building and around gas and electrical meters.
  • Provide proper receptacles for smoking materials.

State Fire Code on Mulch Application

The Comprehensive Fire Safety Code (527 CMR 1.00, section 10.14.10.4) prohibits the new application of mulch within 18” around combustible exteriors of buildings, such as wood or vinyl but not brick or concrete. Residential buildings with six units or less are exempted from this regulation, but all homeowners may also wish to adopt these safety practices. The regulation applies to all other buildings including commercial properties.

Storage and Manufacturing of Mulch

The regulation (527 CMR 1.00, section 31.3.6.4.3) also has safety requirements for those who store or manufacture mulch. It limits the size of mulch piles and requires a distance of 30-feet between piles and 25-feet from the lot line. Large piles of mulch can easily spontaneously combust with all the heat they generate, so it’s important to be vigilant and employ good housekeeping. The distance between piles prevents a fire from easily spreading to another pile or to a building.

Permits Required to Store 300+ Cubic Yards of Mulch

Permits are required from the fire department wherever more than 300 cubic yards of mulch is produced or stored.

Arlington Fatal Fire Destroyed 36-unit Apartment and 6 Cars

One of the most destructive mulch fires in Massachusetts occurred on May 5, 2015 in a large Arlington apartment complex. One man died in the fire started by smoking materials discarded in a mulch bed, which spread to a car, then to a building. Thirty-six apartments and six cars were destroyed. The building had no sprinklers and the estimated dollar loss was $6.7 million.

(NOTE: The above press release is from the State Fire Marshal’s Office.)

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